How the 2000s changed tactics #3: The decline of the three-man defence

March 24, 2010

The Reds' three-man defence works well against the Blues' 4-4-2, giving a spare man at the back, and a spare man in an attacking midfield role

It’s a shame that the three-man defence has become so unfashionable in recent years, because tactically it’s a lot more interesting and varied than a four-man defence. It essentially did the same job – with one fewer player, allowing the side to dominate the midfield with an extra man.

Generally, the three-man defence worked very well against a 4-4-2. In terms of man-marking, a three-man defence would utilise two-man markers with a sweeper as the spare man. Zonally, the three-man defence would shift across the pitch according to what side the ball was on. The right-sided centre-half would have to be comfortable coming to the right-back position, leaving two centre-backs in the area, leaving the central player covering the near post, and the left-sided player the far post. And vice-versa. Sides playing three-man defences were admittedly prone to sides intent on shifting the ball quickly from one wing to another, but as long as it used wing-backs capable of tracking the opposition wide midfielders, it generally worked well – and still left an extra midfielder.

The problem with a three-man defence is that it rarely works well against anything other than two strikers. Against one striker, you’re left with 3 v 1 at the back – fine defensively, but clearly leaving a shortfall somewhere else in the side. Against three forwards (one central and two side), there is no natural solution in terms of marking. If your wing-backs (in a 3-4-1-2) pick up the opposition wingers (in a 4-3-3) you’re left with same problem, being overmanned at the back. If your centre-backs are given the task of picking up the wingers, either they’re dragged dangerously wide, or they’re allowing the wingers the time and space they desire.

Here, however, when the three-man defence faces a 4-3-3, the Red's three-man defence is overstocked against the lone striker. If the Reds' wing-backs mark the Blues' wingers, then they are left with no attacking width and will see little posssession. If the job is left to the centre-backs, the defence falls apart.

Furthermore, the increased emphasis upon (a) movement (b) pace and (c) versatile attacking players in the modern game means it’s simply too easy for a three-man defence to be dragged out of shape. A 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 also left opposition full-backs free – not useful with the advent of attacking full-backs, although this was a less of a problem with a 3-4-3.

In the Premiership, there was a strange mid-late 90s obsession with three-man defences, where the majority of teams in played this way. Even the famous Arsenal backline was playing a three when Arsene Wenger took over – although he shifted them back to four when he won the title in his first full season. The craze may partly have come because of the German Euro 96 side which brilliantly played a 3-4-1-2, with an attacking sweeper in Matthias Sammer and defensive-minded, energetic wing-backs – although it also helped that almost every Premiership side played two upfront, making three at the back a useful default system.

Today, not one Premiership side has used three at the back regularly this season. Too many sides play either three- or one-man strikeforces, and whilst three at the back perhaps remains the optimum system against a 4-4-2, it’s inconvenient to be switching between four and three between games. In Serie A the three-man defence is refreshingly the system of choice for Genoa, Napoli and (sometimes) Palermo – but all have players and managers capable of shifting from a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-3-1-2 when necessary, something Premiership teams have rarely had the ability to do.

Interestingly, the only two sides on ZM’s “Teams of the Decade” feature that used a back three are also the two oldest teams on the list, the Roma side of 2000/01 and the Brazil side of 2002.

Internationally, four at the back remains the defence of choice for all major European nations, and indeed every major contender for this World Cup. Chile is a notable exception, where Marcelo Bielsa fields an exciting 3-3-1-3 shape, and it will be interesting to see how opponents fare against the rare challenge of trying to break down a three-man defence.

Egypt have stuck to a 3-4-1-2 under Hassan Shehata and have won the last three Africa Nations Cups as a result, against sides from a continent still fixated on 4-4-2, but they’ve faced the usual problems against other systems. They won’t be at the World Cup because they lost in the play-off to (on paper) a much weaker Algeria side, which matched their 3-4-1-2. Considering how badly England played for much of the recent friendly at home to Egypt, it will be interesting to see if they face the same problems against the similarly-laid out Algeria side in South Africa, or if they’ve learnt their lessons.

The three-man defence is a real thing of beauty when fielded correctly. Serie A has been fascinating because of the aforementioned three sides’ tendency to play three-man defences, and tactical obsessives regardless of nationality should be backing Chile this summer, hoping success for Bielsa will trigger copycat formations across the world.

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